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Cricket news - The hundred wait ends with a double act
The Hundred had become an obsession for English cricket during their summer. Though not by choice or design, the hundred has become an obsession for Australian cricket during their summer; and in a much more worrying context too. It wasn't the coming of the hundred but the fact that it wasn't coming around at all that had everyone in the country on tenterhooks. The talk leading up to the first-ever Manuka Oval Test was dominated by the topic, perhaps because two batsmen had finally come at least within 20 runs of the elusive three-figure score in the previous match.
Then on Thursday, Joe Burns and Travis Head not only broke the century drought that has held Australian cricket hostage for the last two months, they turned them into those of the daddy variety to hand their team by far the best batting day of the summer. The collective anguish over the lack of a century leading into the final international match of the home season is understandable though. Cricket in Australia has gone through, and overcome, many upheavals and tribulations. It's also overcome a number of challenges, from having to face the barrage of Bodyline to the aftermath of the underam delivery. Not to forget the two wars. Throughout all that, they kept scoring centuries.
But not since 1886, had those proudly donning the Baggy Green gone through such a rut in terms of getting to the hundred-run-mark. They left it till really late but at least Burns and Head got it done, and what's better they did so in the capital. It eventually took a flat pitch, a rudderless and rather inept Sri Lankan attack beset with injuries to all four fast bowlers originally picked for the tour, some ridiculous catching and Tim Paine to flip the coin with his left-hand and actually win the toss. But they did it, and you can't hold the circumstances they did it in or the providence that came their way against either of the two. Australia finally had their hundred/s.
It just so happens that both centurions had spent almost their entire stints during the nets on the eve of the Canberra Test with the one man in their camp who knows all about scoring hundreds, Graeme Hick. You can argue that the batting coach has been around all summer, and not managed to inspire any of his players to do what he did so regularly at the first-class level anyway. And most of the nearly 45-minute sessions each Head and Burns had with Hick were more to do with fine-tuning their techniques. But maybe Hick did slip in a word or two about the formula that worked for him so well in his 25-year career as one of the most prolific domestic batsmen to play the sport.
Maybe he didn't score enough of them at the Test level. But that doesn't matter, and his failure to live up to his early hype at the highest level has been documented well enough already for us to get into it now. But the fact remains that only a handful of men can claim to have known how to get to a three-figure score better than Hick in the history of the sport. He after all got 136 of them - six of which came in Tests - and only Geoffrey Boycott amongst those still alive and who even played cricket past the 1950s has more centuries at the first-class level than the Zimbabwean-born former England batsman. Just for the record, he'd also reportedly scored 86 centuries across all levels before he even turned 22.
And it's no surprise that when he took over as the high-performance coach at Brisbane's national cricket academy from Stuart Law in 2013, one of the first things he spoke about was bringing in a culture of playing "long innings".
"It's really a case of getting the guys used to playing long innings, I'm hoping these guys will realise how good it is to play a long innings," is what he'd said back then. Australia did end up finding the likes of Steve Smith and David Warner, who kind of learnt their own ways to play the long innings. But a number of the younger batsmen in the mix presently have at some point worked with or under Hick ever since he made the move here. And they perhaps learnt a thing or two about going through with it.
It didn't, however, look like they'd done so during the India series or for that matter at the Gabba, Head being the most evident culprit on that front. He'd gone through the entire summer without recording a single-digit score and averaged close over 40 coming to Canberra. He kept getting his eye in, making all the effort to get himself on track for a long innings before throwing it away with a waft outside off-stump or to a restless break-free shot whenever the bowlers put pressure on him.
It's fair to say that the Lankans failed to put much pressure on either Head or Burns for too long, not once the new-ball had gone soft. The first session of the first-ever Test in Canberra could be split into two halves - the first hour where the bowling was decent and the batting very ordinary and then the next when the bowling was very ordinary and the batting decent. From thereon though, the Sri Lankan offering must have seemed like an eat-all-you-can buffet to Head as compared to the very controlled and restricted diet that the Bumrah & Co had kept him on during the India series.
The left-hander's run-scoring is based around staying back in his crease and punishing even the slightest of width outside his off-stump, and the Sri Lankans kept him very nourished on that front. Though his natural technique restricts him from playing too many shots straight down the wicket, there were enough half-volleys on offer too which he managed to punch rather than drive to the straighter field. He's also strong off his pads when the length isn't too full, and again there were enough opportunities presented for him to pepper that side of the field. His footwork against the off-spinners though was the standout facet of his innings. It wasn't just his urgency in stepping out his crease but the positivity in his strides even within it, be it while playing back or off the front-foot. And he never let even the veteran Dilruwan Perera settle into his spell.
But Head had already shown that he was the most-improved batsman in the country, even as early as his half-century in Adelaide. The question was whether he could convert his new-found skillsets into a significant score, and him finally doing so will be one of the biggest takeaways for Australia this summer.
Burns has some experience of making centuries. He'd got three already in Tests before Canberra. But Australia had kind of given up on him prematurely, despite never having found a stable partner for Warner following Chris Rogers' departure. His issue towards the end of his first stint as a Test opener, unlike Head's, was the inability to get going at all. He'd got five single-digit scores across six innings before being dropped in 2016, and it mostly had to do with his penchant to be nicked off early by the new-ball.
It of course has a lot to do with his technique, which is based around passable foot-movement and a tendency to be on the move while playing a defensive shot. It's one of the main reasons why - like even against Suranga Lakmal in Brisbane last week - he ends up edging deliveries that only need to straighten without any excessive movement away from him. He would reveal later that it was getting his body alignment in order where his front arm and head were in the right position allowing his body-weight to go into his defence that he'd worked on with Hick the day before the match.
There were a couple of iffy moments early in his knock, where Kasun Rajitha in particular got the ball to move late off the pitch, exposing his innate weakness. But the determined Burns managed to tighten up his defence like he'd wanted to, and once he'd seen the tough phase out, he was good enough to make the most of his first proper start for a while in a Test innings. The Lankan bowling helped here too, dishing out way too many short-pitched long-hops, which he comfortably dispatched over and over again during his boundary-filled unbeaten century.
Burns would also later reveal that most of his lengthy chat with Hick was to do with his upcoming stint with Lancashire during the English country season. It'll be another English summer where the hundred will continue to dominate discussions, off the field mainly. And Burns will be hoping that he can produce some of his own on the field, not only at the start of the English season but towards the end too, when he's likely to walk out as Australia's opener in the Ashes.
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